For a long time, I thought I was a straight girl: straight ahead, straightforward, straight As, straight answer, straight-laced, get your facts straight. My small and tightly-knit group of friends in late middle school and high school was a mixed-grade motley crew who found each other because each of us didn’t really fit in with the rest of the girls in our own respective grades. We were smart in uncommon ways, each a bit too mature and ready to defy conventional habit and stereotypes, which, at an all-girls’ Episcopal school in Memphis, meant you didn’t have to do anything too extreme; ours was a mild rebellion. We were reverse-snobs, listening to Ani DiFranco, going to see plays instead of going to parties, discussing politics and religion, reading Nietzsche and Simone de Beauvior, writing in journals, and generally fancying ourselves a bad-ass bunch. Though we occupied a small corner of the world at school, we were generally treated well there, finding sympathetic teachers and bemused classmates. And even if our own estimation of our “alternativeness” was inflated, we did live at least a little bit ahead of the curve.
Like any self-respecting group of teenage girls, we had our fair share of drama in the hilariously self-titled “Grrl Gang.” Two of our members dated each other, on-again-and-off-again, for years; the nature of the romance was intensified by the logistics of secret- keeping from parents, classmates, and the school. We were a queer group overall—“queer” as the word is used now, a reclamation of what lies outside the norm—with some girls-kissing-girls thrown in for good measure. But even though several of my closest friends weren’t straight, and I had no problem with that, I still thought that I was. We all did. Especially my parents.
To be fair, I was and still am attracted to men; I didn’t fake that. As a teenager, I liked a lot of boys, had crushes on many, mainly older men, which were never reciprocated. Of course, I had had “crushes” on women, too—but the parameters of female friendship, especially at my all-girls’ school, left plenty of room for general- ized affection and love. I didn’t think of any of it as romantic or out of the ordinary, because it wasn’t, explicitly. Then I fell in love with Kassandra.
When I was seventeen, a very close friend and grrl-gang member broke it off with a long-distance girlfriend (whom I really liked) and started dating a brash, cocky, self-proclaimed “artist” named Kassandra, pronounced with a long “a,” whom I found at first to be insufferably pretentious. In fact, I could not stand anything about Kassandra when we first met, though she flirted with me shame- lessly and somewhere deep down I couldn’t help but be drawn to her swagger. It was when we were all watching a movie, and a preview featuring Jodie Foster came on that I said, without thinking, “She’s so hot.” Kassandra looked at me sideways and said, “Are you sure you’re straight?” Then she set about finding out for herself.
Despite my initial dislike and the fact that she was supposed to be dating my friend, Kassandra managed to charm me. We did a lot of talking on the phone and mix-tape exchanging before I made the connection in my brain that I was physically attracted to her. It simply had never occurred to me as a possibility that I might like girls, too, but it sure did explain a heck of a lot when I finally let her kiss me, my first kiss in my very first car, a bright blue Saturn with an open moon roof.
I’ll never forget driving home that night, my brain about to explode from all of the contradictory thoughts and worries. I was scared, and I didn’t know whom to tell; suddenly, it was clear that I would be in a different category now, according to society, and that my life wasn’t going to look the way I had always thought. My parents and classmates were socially liberal, but I didn’t know how far their tolerance would extend when it came to me. On some level, it was hilarious, because wasn’t I supposed to be the straight girl? The compassionate ally? The one who “got it” but wasn’t in it?
Of course, I had just had my first kiss, and a good one at that, so the excitement (for whatever came next) and relief (that I was no longer the only “never been kissed” one in my group of friends) that came along with it did a fair job of battling with the doubts, fear, and guilt. In the end, I couldn’t deny the reality of what I was feeling; I didn’t want to. My whole body rang with the newness of it all. I felt found, and lost, at the same time.
straight (adj.) 1a: free from curves, bends, angles, or irregularities <straight hair>
I styled my hair short for many years, starting my sophomore year of high school, in an attempt to look older and more sophisticated. It ranged from ear-length to pixie-short, and though I never consciously connected my hair to my sexuality, I know others did. Conscious or not, it was code—I’m not like the other girls, and I don’t want to be—and my father read that code clearly and fought against it. He long harbored visions of me with flowing tresses like the hip-shaking heroines of the Bollywood movies he loved to watch. And so it became the running family joke; my bald father would tell me to “Grow it out!” and “Don’t get it cut so short this time!” and I would tell him, “If you want long hair, then grow it yourself.”
My father started losing his hair when he was in his early twenties. One of my favorite pictures of him is from the time before he went bald, a version of him I never knew. The photograph is black- and-white; my father wears a suit and sunglasses, his hands in his pockets, handsome and stoic. On his head, more hair than I ever saw him with my whole life: medium-thick in soft waves, lustrous and dark, just like mine.
I grew up in a family of three: Subhash, Veena, Nishta. Three is a tricky number to navigate. Three people equals four relationships. Subhash and Veena. Subhash and Nishta. Veena and Nishta. Subhash, Veena, and Nishta.
My mother was fully a mother, fully desirous of being so, having tried so hard and for so long and with so much sadness tied up in it. I know that my father was equally excited to have a child, didn’t fake his enthusiasm for parenthood or do it because my mother wanted him to, but still, it meant something different to him than it did to her. My mother’s attention toward me was inexhaustible. Being my mother was the whole of her identity; all other functions, obligations, and responsibilities were, to varying degrees, tangential. Not that she indulged me—she was firm and strict where my father was inclined to spoil—rather, she indulged herself. I may have been my father’s darling, but I was one-hundred- percent my mother’s child, and it was primarily through her cues that I developed my relationship with him.
I think that the power of his wife’s insistent mothering left my father with little room to squeeze in between her and me. Though I didn’t see it at the time, I was often my mother’s conspirator when discontent or argument got the better of my parents. I would watch them from the carpeted staircase, which went up eight steps to a landing then flipped around and went upward for another eight. A picture frame, three feet by two feet, full of little circles, rectangles, and squares, in which happy scenes of my young parents and baby self peeked out, hung at the top of the first flight of stairs. Hidden behind the wall which separated the top stairs from the bottom ones, I could see the lights and figures in the kitchen reflected on the glass, and hear easily every word, until I got older and they got wise and started closing the kitchen doors.
These arguments would come to a head, my mother charging upstairs to my parents’ bedroom, my father remaining downstairs for some solitude. After enough time had passed, I would slide quietly, softly into my parents’ bedroom and into my mother’s lap. I felt it was my job to make her feel better, to let her air her grievances and then pad downstairs to see my father, whose face and tone betrayed only that he was tired. As we all grew older, I became the center of the arguments, and of course I fought back. We, the women in my father’s life, slamming our way through his house as he did his best either to play mediator or stay quiet. I started to lean into him then, realizing that he had fifteen years on me when it came to my mother. He would explain to me about her, how I could be more diplomatic, that I shouldn’t provoke her, that she didn’t mean to say those things. I began to see him more, see him differently in those times.
straight (adj.) 3a : exhibiting honesty and fairness <straight dealing> b : properly ordered or arranged
When I started dating Kassandra, my mom thought I was doing drugs. My father was completely clueless. I never could—still can’t— lie to my mother, and so, when she confronted me, I told her the truth, which I thought would surely come as a relief. What’s kissing a girl to smoking pot? As it turns out, I think my mother would have found pot smoking to be preferable, because at least it was within the realm of possibility of her planning, things she had considered, things she felt she could deal with. My mother is a woman who obsessively makes lists, who will walk across the room to flick a light switch so the ones on the other side of the room will stay lined up, all facing up or all facing down. More than any cultural disapproval or moral confusion, I believe what bothered my mom most about my dating a girl was that she hadn’t seen it coming. She had never prepared for the possibility that her little girl would not grow up to fall in love and marry a man (even a white man! my parents were so prepared to give me that one), have babies, and so on.
She kept my relationship with Kassandra a secret from my father for a few months, assured in her mind that it was simply a “phase” I would grow out of, one of the dangers of raising your children in America, where they get all kinds of strange notions in their heads.
Then, during a family argument, my mother outed me to my father as a kind of punishment for him taking my side. “You think she’s so blameless? You want to know what’s she’s doing, what she’s keeping from you?” Initially, he was angry, shocked, and disappointed. Then he decided he would talk me out of being gay.
Talking was his way; yelling was my Mom’s. Dad liked to “capital-T” Talk in the living room, the most expensively decorated room in the house, and therefore the least used. My Yamaha piano upright in one corner, a glass curio cabinet in another, rugs from India stretched across the floor, and crown molding & a gold border edging the ceiling like icing. My father’s favorite chair, a boxy but comfortable thing upholstered in silver-blue fabric, sat up against the window in front of lacy curtains and with a view of the street, partially blocked by the greenery of my mother’s meticulously tended front yard.
The living room and its chair served as the backdrop for all things serious and important—every picture ever taken of me dressed up for a special occasion (piano recital, wedding, graduation) was taken in that room, with me either in the chair or next to it, piano visible off to one side. It was in the living room that my father congratulated me on getting my first period, telling me “You’re a woman now, I’m very proud of you,” me sitting on one arm of the chair, half pleased, half totally mortified. This is where my father would read the paper on weekend mornings, and where he’d ask if he could sit and listen while I practiced piano.
“Nito, please come into the living room,” always meant that I was in for something. No matter how congenial he looked in his chair, I knew that a “discussion,” by which he usually meant lecture, was about to take place. But the difference in our conversation about my sexuality was that I could not see that I had done anything wrong. I didn’t feel that I had anything to apologize for, other than keeping a secret from him. I was happy, but that didn’t seem to matter. My father saw my relationship with Kassandra as a choice, one that I could only be making spitefully, to hurt him and to dishonor everything my parents had ever done for me. How difficult it would be for them, and how embarrassing.
After that conversation, and my inability to respond in any way other than insulted and pissed off, my father stopped speaking to me for about three months. He said things like “Pass the salt” and “Goodnight,” and acted perfectly normal towards me in public, but for most of the second semester of my senior year of high school, he and I were frozen in silence.
straight (adj.) 2a : lying along or holding to a direct or proper course or method <a straight thinker> b : candid, frank <a straight answer>
I buzzed all of my hair off my freshman year of college, the result of a social experiment that I undertook with my fortuitously-assigned roommate Rebecca. She was from a small town just outside of Ft. Worth, Texas, the youngest of three siblings, and the product of a Santayana-reading Mexican father and a sweet-and-naïve-as-pie, Church of Christ-adherent mother. In her efforts to mix these two parts of herself, Rebecca was, at nineteen, bolder and more defiant than I could conceive of being. She was my first true friend on campus, and shaving our heads was her idea.
You can guess how two girls with shaved heads who go everywhere together and do everything together are seen, but the funny thing is that while you could have connected my lack of hair to my sexuality, Rebecca is the straightest girl I know. To the stereotyping eye, she’s often mistaken for a lesbian; we have long joked that she would make a better one than me. She rarely wears skirts, knows how to repair all kinds things, has worked construction, lusts after motorcycles, and doesn’t like spending money on shoes or makeup. I, on the other hand, am a preppy, J. Crew-buying, high-heel-wearing, mechanically-indifferent lipstick lesbian.
When we met, Rebecca was already practiced at rebellion, busy untangling herself from her mother’s world inch by inch. But even though I was scandalously “out,” I was still deeply attached to what people thought, trying to square the ideal of the proper Southern world I was brought up in with the new things I had discovered about myself and the world at large. Given all of that, there seemed no more direct or immediate way for me to force myself to deal with who I was and who I wanted to be than to shave my head; at the very least, I figured “Why the hell not?”
Everyone else assumed I was having some kind of angry lesbian moment, but I wasn’t really all that angry. I shaved my head because I could. I was in college, away from home for the first time and drunk on that exhilarating sense of utter freedom and rapacious, but simultaneously innocent, self-involvement. I didn’t have to find a job. I didn’t owe anyone anything, in my estimation. More than anything, I wanted to know if I could do it. If I could be the kind of person who shaves her head for no good reason. If I could stand the looks and snickers and detach myself from my appearance enough to practice not giving a shit what other people thought. There was a healthy dose of daredevil, too, but overall it was an earnest undertaking. It’s just hair, I thought.
To my surprise and perhaps disappointment, my father handled my shaved head remarkably well, voicing no critiques and even silencing my mother who clearly thought I had lost my mind. He and I had reconnected to a certain extent, as a result of the distance, and no doubt, too, as a result of the boyfriend I had for a few months during my first semester of college. But I never straight-out asked my father what he thought of my shorn head; I think I was probably afraid to hear how he really felt. Perhaps a shaved head was too far beyond anything he felt he could joke about; perhaps it felt like a slap in the face, a deliberate separation from everything he had wanted for me, and from me.
In college, my relationship with my parents healed, then tore again, like a scab that kept crusting over. We maintained our own kind of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy until I could no longer bear it, longing for the closeness that once had been. I had to come out to them a second time, sort of an “I’m a lesbian for real” phone conversation that I remember little of; it was so awful that I trained myself to put it out of my mind. My father followed up with a many-page, handwritten letter, so wounded and manipulative in content that I completely blocked the memory of it, too, rediscovering it only after his death, when I found among his papers a copy of the letter that he had made for himself to keep. For my part, I was in my early twenties and more entitled than compassionate with my wounded parents, unable to fathom how my self-expression could break their hearts.
Lest it sound like I had some terrible kind of family life, it’s important to know that I never stopped loving my parents or feeling loved by them. I still enjoyed seeing and spending time with them; I missed them. I would never have spoken ill of them to anyone. It’s difficult to separate what would have naturally occurred as part of the leaving-home-and-differentiating-your-identity growing pains from the intensity that my sexuality brought to the table. Frustrated and disappointed in them though I was, I remained grateful to them and defensive of them. And the perspective that came with being away from home and broadening my world allowed me to cut them some slack, realize how lucky I was. For their part, my parents never stopped paying my way, never even threatened to, and they continued to encourage me academically, telling me they were proud of the things they were proud of.
But we were split—a whole side of my life I didn’t speak about, including the serious relationship I had begun with Jill—and a whole glacier’s worth of worry and disappointment on their side that I only caught a glimpse of from time to time. I heard accounts of it from my mother, which continued the pattern of splitting our family, unfairly weighing the relationships contained within.
“He never even talks about you! He doesn’t even mention your name anymore, it’s like you don’t exist.” When he did speak about me, I gathered, it was with anger, the cloak of the betrayed, since he believed that I had selfishly chosen a life that would humiliate and disappoint my parents, my parents who worked so hard their whole lives to give me everything I ever wanted.
[box type=”bio”] NISHTA MEHRA, author of The Pomegranate King, is an English teacher, a lover of words, with a heart for great food. Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee as the first-generation daughter of Indian immigrants, she is equal parts Southern belle & good Punjabi girl. Her amazing recipes can be found at BlueJeanGourmet.com, where she blogs about food and all about life. In 2010, the Houston Press called her one of Houston’s Top Ten Blog Stars, and in 2011, the Houston Web Awards named Blue Jean Gourmet the city’s Best Food Blog. She is also the founder & director of Valentines for Soldiers-Houston, an annual community and fundraising event benefitting members of the U.S. Military. She lives with her partner Jill and their son Shiv in a suburb of Houston, TX.
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